by Sarah Wilkinson
A furry caterpillar inches along the concrete driveway between her shiny black flats. Ruth lifts a foot, letting it hover over the caterpillar, forcing it under a sudden cloud of darkness.
“I wish you’d come with us,” she hears Grandma tell her dad.
“We’ve been over this,” he starts, and, struck with an urge so sudden it makes her raised leg shake, Ruth closes her eyes and stomps her foot down. When she opens her eyes again, both adults are staring at her.
“Grandma,” Ruth says, wringing her hands in front of her polka dot dress. “I don’t want to go to church anymore.”
Grandma puckers her lips at Dad. “This is your fault.” To Ruth she says, “You know what my mom did when I was eight—about your age—and said that exact thing to her?”
Ruth looks down between her toes, spotting the caterpillar nearing the edge of the driveway, about to disappear under the cover of grass.
“She took a wooden spoon from the counter and slapped me across the face with it, Ruth. That’s what she did.”
“Mom,” her Dad pleads, putting his plumber’s hand, dirty under the nails, on Grandma’s birdlike shoulder. She shakes him off.
“Just be glad we’re not in the kitchen,” her grandma says to Ruth, opening the door to her 1996 Buick Lacrosse and slamming it shut. She reverses so fast that gravel spits up from under the tires.
Ruth looks down at the driveway once more, but the caterpillar is gone.
“Here’s that devil worship you asked for.”
Ruth turns around to find her grandmother holding a wrapped box out to her. Unsure if she’s supposed to laugh, Ruth takes the package from her grandma’s hands.
Her grandma steps around her, but not before putting a veiny hand on Ruth’s shoulder. “Oh,” she quips with a coy smile, “I also slipped something special in there for you.” Ruth watches her grandma’s box-colored red hair float easily across the room like the carpet isn’t strewn with wrapping paper, Tonka Trucks, and the squirming bodies of Ruth’s younger cousins. The edges of the room are lined with baby angels carved out of stone.
She slides the wrapping paper off the box and inside finds all four books that make up the Twilight series, just as she’d asked. Buried at the very bottom, she finds another book, this one with its own individual wrapping and a curly red ribbon. Ruth glances up across the room, accidentally meeting her grandma’s eyes. She turns toward the wall, ripping the paper off.
“It’s large print,” her grandma whispers in her ear, sidling up behind her.
Ruth holds the bulky red-leather Bible in her hands. The pages are rimmed in gold, the font large enough to see from halfway across the room. Before Ruth can say anything, her grandma disappears again. All around her, Ruth watches her younger cousins open Batman action figures and Barbie dolls with sparkly dresses. No one else has been given a Bible. No one else, Ruth realizes with a start, has been a disappointment.
Even after her outburst in the driveway a few years ago, things had been fine. She’d worked out a deal with her dad where he promised to give her a dollar for every Sunday she went to church. Then he’d phoned her grandma and begged for forgiveness on Ruth’s behalf—“She’s just a child! She had no idea what she was saying!”—which Grandma eventually gave. The next Sunday, Grandma had shown up on the doorstep, grabbing Ruth too tightly by the hand and pulling her out to the car, afraid Ruth would change her mind and make a run for the stand of trees in the backyard. After church, her grandmother’s car gone from the driveway, her dad had pulled a dollar bill out of his wallet and gave it to her without a word.
This went on for nearly a year until the Collection Basket Incident, the thought of which still makes Ruth shudder. Never allowed to go to Bible School with the other kids because her grandma was scared to let Ruth out of her sight, she would always sit with the other adults in the main chapel. Every Sunday, she watched the collection basket full of quarters and nickels and dollar bills pass by, her grandma snatching it quickly from Ruth’s hands. Except, one Sunday, her grandma hadn’t been paying attention when the collection came around, too busy talking to the pastor’s wife about the organ player’s scandalous divorce. The basket in her hands, Ruth had spotted a crisp 20 among the usual pile of quarters and dollars. She’d reached out and grabbed it, entranced by the pyramid on the back and the way the green paper felt like soft cloth. Suddenly, a hand had come down from the sky, smacking the bill right from her hand.
“What do you think you’re doing?” her grandma had demanded, raising her voice so that everyone could hear. “Are you going to steal from the church?”
Ruth had been so shocked and ashamed that she started crying. She kept on until her grandma had no choice but to drag her between the pews of disappointed faces out to the car. Grandma had been silent all the way home until she threw the car into park outside Ruth’s house.
“You’re not coming to church anymore,” her grandma had spat at Ruth, looking at her in the rearview mirror. “And don’t think I don’t know about the bribe your father has been giving you every week so that you’ll come with me.” Her grandma turned around in the seat, getting as close as she could to Ruth’s face. “I know everything.”
Just then, her dad had opened the car door and Ruth had tried to jump out so fast that her seat belt, still buckled, whipped her backward.
Ruth had secretly been thrilled that she didn’t have to put her scratchy, too-small polka dot dress on every Sunday and listen to boring old men drone on about boring arks and divine creation. She was glad she didn’t have to listen to the woman who played the piano hit the wrong keys, making her wince. It was a relief to not have to bow her head and pray anymore because it made her head fuzzy and her body feel so small on the hard pew bench. She preferred to keep her eyes open.
For months afterward, when Grandma called to talk to Ruth’s dad, he would ask, “Want to talk to Ruth?” and she would say, “I certainly do not.” It hadn’t bothered Ruth at the time—her grandma wasn’t a fun woman to talk to even on the best days—but standing alone next to the Christmas tree now, she feels like she’s been socked in the stomach with the Bible that she clutches in her hands. She and her grandma are at least on speaking terms now, and have been since Ruth turned 12 last June, so long as you count “Happy Birthday, Ruth,” or “Pass the rolls, Ruth,” as being on speaking terms.
She hadn’t found any reason to be alarmed before, but the reasons start flying back to her. She remembers last Christmas, when her grandma dropped Ruth’s slice of cheesecake—her all-time favorite—on the floor and called her Schnauzer on it before it even hit the ground. And the time she “forgot” to send Ruth a card with a crisp 50 dollar bill inside of it on her 11th birthday. And the time last Thanksgiving when her grandma hugged everyone hello and goodbye except for her. And the time just a few months ago when her grandma had called her “Ruby” and never corrected herself. Maybe they weren’t coincidences.
When she gets home, Ruth locks herself in her room and sets her new stack of Twilight books to the side of her desk. She climbs into bed with her large print Bible that smells of her grandma’s musty closet and begins to read. She reads until her eyes can’t stay open any longer, and then she whips the covers off and slides down to the floor. She shoves the Bible under her bed, positioning it exactly at the mid-point, right below the spot where her own body sleeps at night. There, just right. She stands back up, flicks the light off, and climbs into bed waiting to feel the Holy Spirit awaken from the pages and radiate out, filling her body.
The door clicks shut behind her. Standing in the middle of the room in her sensible clogs and blue dress that she decides has altogether too many sequins, Ruth waits for further instructions. The Pastor walks past her, close enough that she can feel his wind and smell the freshly cracked leather of his new belt.
She looks around the Pastor’s office at the plaid wallpaper peeling at the top and bottom of the walls, the small room divided in half by a massive wooden table with one slatted chair on each side of it. The only light comes in from the solitary window shoved into the corner.
“Ruth,” he says, pointing to the chair across from the one he’s just sat down in. “Please.”
She sinks slowly onto the edge of the seat, crossing her legs, uncrossing them. The bookshelf behind him is full of Bibles of all sizes and colors, arranged haphazardly. The rain sticks in the window screen, and she can almost smell the sweet scent of the wet fiberglass. It reminds her of her mother.
“I hear you’re ready to become a true follower of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the Pastor says slowly, drawing her attention to him. He slides a black Bible from the end of the table, placing it squarely in front of her. “Your right hand, please.”
She lifts her hand and lets it rest against the cold, slightly sticky cover. Her stomach flutters into her esophagus, but she swallows it down.
“Romans 10: 9:,” he begins, quoting from memory. His eyes flit across the small patch of exposed skin at her neck; a flush rises to her cheeks. She can’t stop looking at his funny mustache that flickers like a shadow across his face. “’…if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.’”
With her free hand, she tries to resist squeezing her thigh through the rough sequins on her dress. She pictures her grandma sitting in the hallway outside, the chapel empty at this time of day, staring through the cheap wood of the door straight at the back of Ruth’s head. She sits up taller.
“Say yes, Ruth,” he says, putting an edge on her name. She stares at her hand resting limp on the Bible.
“Yes,” she says, quiet and precise, a quiver of wind echoing through the strings of a bow.
She’d been trying so hard, surely her grandma could see that. Church every Sunday and Wednesday night; evening prayers before bed, where she slept right above the red-leather Bible, willing herself to absorb its teachings. She’d volunteered to run Bingo in the chapel, spending every Saturday running around the room to check bingos while keeping the Bible School kids from putting their hands in the punch bowl. Ruth had even started making her father hold her hands across the dinner table to say a blessing before they ate each night.
“Do you believe that Jesus Christ died for your sins and was resurrected, is alive within you, and hears your prayers?” His voice is like a Q-tip digging too far inside her ears. “Do you invite the Lord Jesus into your heart, to rule and reign over you for the rest of your life?”
He leans closer to her, his wrinkled white button-down slipping out from the waist of his corduroy pants. “Ruth,” he whispers, exposing the white gunk on his teeth. “Say yes.”
The hymns they sang on Sunday mornings always felt foreign on her tongue. She’d tried to get away with mouthing them, but her grandma caught her and said, “The Lord knows when your heart’s not in it.” And so Ruth had started to whisper, and then finally, she’d started to sing. But it left a bad taste in her mouth, like she’d been sucking on pennies.
“John 3: 16: ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’”
For all the praying she’d been doing, she wasn’t particularly good at it. She crouched on her knees beside her bed until the hardwood made her bones ache, trying to talk to God without feeling like a phony. “Dear God,” she would try. No, no, that’s all wrong. “My Lord and Savior,” she’d try again, sticking her tongue out after speaking as though she’d tasted something sour. Even when she did get past the salutation, she never quite knew what she was supposed to say. She’d seen the way women in church lifted their faces toward the sky after they said “Amen!” as though the sun was warming them, and just once, Ruth wanted to know what that felt like.
“Ruth,” the Pastor barks. Startled, she kicks her leg out and hits him in the shin. She forces her eyes into her lap, where she notices a sequin falling out of line.
“Yes,” she says, too quietly.
“You will be saved so long as you keep Jesus Christ in your heart. Okay?”
Ruth nods, standing up so fast the chair creaks on the linoleum.
“Let me get that for you,” he says, walking around the table to open the door for her. When she’s about to slip past, he grabs her by the shoulder and leans into her ear, “For Jesus to stay in your heart, you first have to let Him in.” She can think of nothing but the smell of tobacco on his tongue and the way his mustache looks like a furry caterpillar in the gray light. She resists the urge to smush it with her palm.
“How was it?” her grandma asks, turning to walk out of the chapel before Ruth can gather her thoughts into words.
“I’m a true Christian now,” Ruth says, her words hitting the back of her grandma’s rain jacket and falling to the wet concrete.
From the middle of the table, the Easter ham glistens with full-fat gravy the color of a muddy field.
“It looks wonderful,” her father says, eyeing the web of melted butter on the mashed potatoes.
Ruth looks around the dining room, which is really just the living room with all the furniture pushed to the windows. From the walls, miniature porcelain angels with rosy cheeks and ringlet curls smile down at her. In the china cabinet, small angel figurines have forever stopped in time, mid-wing-beat, mid-two-step, mid-prayer. On the carpet stained with dog pee, giant porcelain angels meant to be lawn ornaments pose artfully on their sides, draping their arms across their smooth foreheads. She feels the weight of a thousand pairs of eyes on her.
“Dad,” she’d said a few weeks ago from where she laid on the living room floor. “I don’t think I’m a good Christian.”
He’d smashed his cigarette into an ashtray shaped like a woman’s butt. “Why’s that?” he’d said, looking at the TV.
“I’ve been praying for months and going to church but I don’t really feel any different,” Ruth had said to the ceiling.
“Then why do you keep going?”
Ruth had propped herself up on her elbow. “Grandma would stop talking to me if I stopped going.”
He’d lit another cigarette, letting the silence stack up in smoke curls all the way to the ceiling fan. “Let me tell you something about my mother,” he’d said after a while. “She hates God, but she doesn’t know how to stop worshipping Him.”
Ruth had sat up and crossed her legs together on the Harley Davidson rug. “What do you mean she hates God?”
“Her mother pushed the Bible on her hard. Everything she did growing up had to be in service of God. It was a condition of her being part of the family. Instead of loving God and hating her mother, she chose to love her mother and hate God.”
Grandma slaps her Dad’s hand away from the green bean casserole, the sound startling Ruth. “We have to say prayer first,” she says.
“Fine,” he says. Turning to Ruth, “Say the blessing so that your grandmother will let me eat.”
“No,” her grandma interjects. “Ruth can’t say the blessing.”
Unsure she even wanted to say it in the first place, heat rises to Ruth’s cheeks. “Why can’t I?” she asks.
“Ruth,” her grandma says, looking at her with a firm lip and sagging chin.
Ruth thinks about the red-leather Bible growing dusty under her bed, how she’s grown afraid to touch it since she first put it there, like it’ll burn her fingers.
“I don’t think I’ll be going to church with you anymore,” she blurts.
“Okay,” her grandma says, prodding the ham with a serving fork.
“Don’t you want to know why?” Ruth asks.
Ruth pauses, taken aback by her grandma’s poise. “You never ask dad to go to church with you.”
“So I don’t.”
“That’s not really fair because, when I was 11, you stopped talking to me because I wouldn’t go to church with you.”
“Ruth, I’m tired of talking about this.”
“I know about your mother,” Ruth says, eyeing her grandma across the table.
“Oh?” Grandma raises her eyebrows. “What do you think you know about her?”
Ruth sits up a little taller in her chair. “I know that she would have stopped loving you if you’d ever stopped going to church—Dad told me that. She’s been dead for a long time, but you’re still afraid of her. That’s why you keep going.”
Grandma straightens her spine. “You’re one to be talking about maternal love. It certainly seemed easy for your mother to leave,” her Grandma speaks slowly. For a moment, Ruth is a little girl with her face pressed up against the sweet-scented fiberglass window screen, watching as her mom and dad fight in the rain. Her mom had gotten in the car, slamming the door.
“Mom,” Ruth’s dad warns, putting a warning hand out at her. “She’s a child.”
“She has a mouth,” Grandma spits back.
“Let’s just eat,” Dad says, picking up his fork.
A painful silence falls over the table. Grandma lifts a slice of ham onto her plate, but doesn’t move to eat it.
“Your mom forced God on you,” Ruth says, not ready to drop it. “That’s why you’re always so mad. You never even liked going to church. And now you’re trying to force it on me.”
Grandma grips her butter knife with one hand, kneading her napkin with the other. “Your father said we should eat,” she says through gritted teeth. “So let’s eat.”
Her dad takes a scoop of potatoes and lets them fall like pig slop onto his plate.
Ruth doesn’t reach for anything, instead watching her grandma take deep breaths with her eyes closed.
“How come you didn’t want me to say the blessing?” Ruth asks.
Her grandmother’s eyes open.
“Eat,” her father directs, pointing to Ruth’s empty plate with his knife.
“Because,” her grandma says. “Even a savage could tell you have no heart for religion. Anyone who chokes every time she says ‘Amen’ in church is someone who is lying to herself. You don’t believe in God and you never have. Everyone knows it.”
“I’ve tried really hard,” Ruth says, sinking deeper into her chair. “I’ve read the Bible through three times since Christmas.”
“That’s great dear,” her grandma says, pushing her red hair off her forehead where it’d fallen out of its hair spray. “But let’s not forget the Collection Basket Incident.”
“You’re not a very good grandma,” Ruth says, gripping her thighs beneath the table. “Grandmas are supposed to love unconditionally.”
Cheeks flashing red, her grandma turns to Dad. “You’ve raised a heathen and I want her out of my house.”
Ruth stands up, knocking her chair over. She grabs a cold roll from the pan and squeezes the soft bread in her hand. Her dad stands, reaching in his pocket for his car keys.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know what’s gotten into her.” He grabs Ruth by the shoulder and starts to pull her to the door.
“The devil,” her grandma says, patting her mouth with a napkin as she sits back into her chair.
Over her shoulder, Ruth launches the roll. It flips over itself through the air, hitting one of the angels with perfect ringlet curls hanging on the wall. The last thing she hears before the door shuts behind her is the thump of porcelain cracking as it hits the ground. She swears she also hears the sound of severing skin, of an arrow piercing her grandmother’s side.
But as her father’s tires slip through the rainy streets, she grows less certain she heard anything at all.
Ruth slams the door to her bedroom, throwing her coat on the floor and dropping to her knees. She lifts the bed skirt and reaches for the dusty red-leather Bible. Holding it in her hands, she sits on her knees until they go numb, the anger building in her. She opens the cover and begins ripping out page after page, crumpling them up between her hands and throwing them at her closed door. She can feel her grandmother looking at her through the pages, shaking her head at every jagged edge she leaves in the binding.
In a fury, she gathers all the crumpled pages, grabs what’s left of the red-leather Bible, and throws her door open, running outside around the side of the house until she gets to the trash bins. Without a moment’s pause, she pulls one of the lids up, throws the Bible and crumpled balls of scripture into the trash and smashes the lid down.
Walking back to the front door, she sees a dark stain on one of the concrete porch steps. She kneels down: it’s a furry caterpillar, smushed dead. She sits on the step beside it, lifting her face to the sky as the sun emerges from behind a cloud. She likes the way it feels.